Ugandan Asian Refugee Movement 1972

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Canada’s Ugandan Asian Movement of 1972: Roots and Consequences

Micheal J. Molloy, Adjunct Professor, Carlton University, Ottawa

THE team sent to Kampala by the Canadian government opened its doors to Asians seeking to come to Canada on September 6th, 1972. The lineup stretched for many blocks and on that day alone, the team took in 2,588 applications covering 7,764 people. (Mike Molloy was in Kampala and is well known to many of our readers. Ed.)

Mackenzie King’s Immigration Policy

For most of its history, Canada’s governments restricted immigration to people of European origins. Indeed, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced in 1947 that Canada would reopen its immigration program following 15 years of extremely limited arrivals due to the Great Depression (1929-39) and the Second World War (1939-45) he made it clear that immigrants from Asia in particular would not be welcome.

"There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population. …The government, therefore, has no thought of making any change in immigration regulations which would have consequences of the kind."

There was little if any objection to King’s statement by the people of Canada. So, how was it that 25 years later, Canada opened its door and welcomed 8,000 Asians who were being expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin Dada? The changes in Canadian values, government policy and public attitudes that occurred between 1947 and 1972 are part of what Allan Levine, writing in Canada’s History magazine, called “Canada’s Slow Road to Tolerance” ( This article looks at some of the events and decisions along that slow road to tolerance that made the acceptance and welcoming of the Ugandan Asians possible. Post War Displaced People

One of the positive elements of Mackenzie King’s 1947 speech was that he recognized Canada’s moral responsibility to assist in providing solutions for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Second World War who were unwilling to return to their Soviet dominated countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. King dispatched the Canadian Government Immigration Mission (CGIM) to Europe and between 1947 and 1951 the CGIM facilitated the arrival in Canada of 186,000 displaced people. Despite the return of a million Canadian servicemen and women at the end of the war, the booming Canadian economy had created severe labour shortages and the so called “DPs” helped to fill the labour market gaps.

Impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948, the United Nations released the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (largely authored by Canadian John Humphries). Alan Levine’s highly recommended article describes the overt and deeply rooted racial prejudice and antisemitism that characterized Canada at that time. He traces how leaders like Ontario’s Premier Leslie Frost came to understand the significance of the UDHR and introduced legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing.

The Hungarian Revolt: Canada embraces its refugee resettlement role

In 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against the Communist system that had been imposed by the Soviets after the war. While the Canadian government dithered for a month, fearful of infiltration of Soviet agents and the arrival of Hungarians “of the Hebrew race,” the media and public were thrilled by the courage of the “freedom fighters” squaring off against Russian troops and tanks. When the government decided to act, it did so decisively: Immigration Minister J.W. Pickersgill was dispatched to Austria with full authority to slash the red tape and organize a movement that brought 37,000 Hungarian refugees to Canada. Aside from the infusion of some very creative people, the legacy of the Hungarian movement was that it established in the minds of politicians, officials, media and the Canadian public that resettling refugees was something Canada did and did well. As Canada sought a distinct role for itself in the international community, our immigration infrastructure, know-how and experience would enable Canada to play a major role on the international stage when crises involving displacement arose.

First Steps: The Bill of Rights and Ellen Fairclough’s 1962 Regulations

In 1960, Prime Minister Diefenbaker introduced the Bill of Rights which forbade discrimination in areas under federal jurisdiction. Immigration was one of those areas and it fell to Immigration Minister Ellen Fairclough (Canada’s first female cabinet minister) to remedy the inconsistencies between the Bill of Rights and Canada’s discriminatory immigration practices. Fairclough would have preferred to bring in a new immigration act but there was no political appetite for dealing with immigration matters at the Parliamentary level. Instead, she introduced the 1962 Regulations (regulations could be approved by Cabinet, not Parliament).

The 1962 Regulations removed most of the existing racial barriers and made it possible for immigration officials to approve the admission of people from anywhere as long as they had the skills, resources and attributes to establish themselves in Canada. This fundamental change was implemented with no publicity or consultations. This was an important step forward but there was no actual system that could explain to Parliament, the media or the public why some people were admitted and others were not.

Universality and the Point System

Real change came in 1967, when Immigration Deputy Minister Tom Kent, a British journalist, former editor of the Winnipeg Free press and strong advocate for human rights introduced the “Universality” immigration policy underpinned by the famous point system. Under the point system, a total of 100 points was assigned to qualifications and factors such as age, occupation, skill level, years of education, arranged employment, presence of relatives in Canada, economic conditions at the community of destination and the opinion of the visa officer as to the applicant’s personal suitability. Normally an applicant had to attain 50 points to qualify for admission to Canada. While not without its flaws the point system went a long way to eliminating arbitrary decisions and was applied without regard to location, race, nationality religion etc. The Universality system also established parallel systems for nuclear and extended family members. The immigration department established a network of area offices to deliver immigration services to countries with no resident immigration facilities. Immigration officials were soon interviewing people wishing to immigrate from over 100 countries and territories. The fundamental alteration to the character of Canada’s population so feared by Mackenzie King and his contemporaries was under way.

Ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol

While a Canadian diplomat by the name of Leslie Chace had chaired the international negotiations that led to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, the Canadian government declined to ratify the Convention under the misapprehension that it would impede Canada from deporting communist agents and agitators. The failure to sign the Convention in no way inhibited the resettlement of approximately 200,000 European refugees and displaced people in the post war decades, including 11,000 Czechoslovakians fleeing yet another Russian invasion in 1968-69.

The 1951 UN Convention, negotiated in the early years of the Cold War, gave protection only to people displaced within Europe and by events prior to 1951. In 1967 (coincidentally the same year Canada adopted the universality policy and the point system) the UN released for signature a Protocol to the 1951 Convention. The Protocol extended the reach of the Convention to the entire world and to people displaced by events after 1951.

Impact of Signing the Refugee Convention: Refugee resettlement extended beyond Europe

In the late 1960s, at the urging of the Department of External Affairs, the Immigration Department removed its objections and Canada ratified the Convention in 1969. A few months later in July 1970 the Immigration Minister submitted a memorandum to Cabinet which began as follows.

'Problem: While Canada’s immigration program was placed on a universal basis with the introduction of the new immigration regulation in1967, the selection of refugees has continued to favour persons of European origins

Objective: to establish a refugee program which will admit refugees who have good prospects of settlement in Canada without regard to geographic origin.'

The memorandum went on to make three suggestions to which Cabinet agreed:

First, Canada would adopt the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of a refugee as modified by the protocol. This meant that Canada would now recognize as refugees people who met the definition providing for selection on a universal basis. The definition now used by Canada would be:

Any person who, owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his* nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country: or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to that fear, is unwilling to return to it. [*Gender sensitivity was not a feature of the early 1950s.]

Second, a refugee from anywhere in the world would become admissible providing he was capable of successful settlement and did not have a contagious disease or a criminal record. The point system would be used to determine whether a refugee would be capable of successful settlement and immigration officers were reminded that they had the discretionary authority to override the point system if there was sufficient government or private assistance available to ensure successful establishment in Canada.

Third, the government agreed to an Oppressed Minority policy to be applied where minorities facing oppression in their home country could be discretely approved for immigration to Canada. [Source: Cabinet Document 1032770 July 27, 1970 and Cab.Doc 1116/70September 16,1970]

This is the refugee resettlement framework that applied to the Ugandan Asians, the Chileans and the first wave of the Indochinese until the 1976 Immigration Act came into effect in April 1978. The first people to benefit from this new policy were 228 Tibetan refugees from India admitted in 1970 at the request of the Dalai Lama. They were followed in 1971 by 100 Chinese families admitted from Hong Kong. In October 1971, multiculturalism, designed to protect and recognize the contributions of Canada’s diverse communities, became the official policy of the Canadian government.

Post-Independence Pressure on Asian Minorities in Eastern Africa

As the British colonies in East Africa (and Zambia) attained independence, Canada became aware of the pressures facing the Asian populations in these countries. Between 1966 and 1971 over 3,500 Asians immigrated to Canada from Africa. This included 700 people accepted by Canadian officers sent to Kenya in 1968 in response to pressure on the Asian community there. There was little interest in Canada from the community in Uganda with fewer than 500 immigrating to Canada in that period and by 1971 the interest of the responsible Canadian immigration area office in Beirut was focussed on Tanzania where the government was nationalizing the businesses and assets of the Asians residing there.

Having ousted President Milton Obote in a coup in January 1971 while the president was attending a Commonwealth Leaders conference in Singapore, Idi Amin Dada’s flamboyant pronouncements quickly won him international notoriety. Nevertheless his announcement, on August 4, 1972, that Asians with British passports had 90 days to leave came as a shock.

Trudeau had been at the Singapore conference when his friend Obote received the news that he had been ousted. On learning of the planned expulsion, Trudeau immediately informed his Cabinet that he (not Immigration Minister Bryce Mackasey) would take the lead in formulating Canada’s response. He immediately instructed the departments of External Affairs, Immigration and National Defence to begin planning. Conditions in Canada were far from ideal: unemployment was high, the economy was in bad shape and the government was facing an election. The area office in Beirut, with responsibility for Uganda, was originally informed that planners were considering a commitment to resettle 3,000 people. Normal selection criteria would not be relaxed.

The UK, beset with racial tensions and politicians like Ian Paisley stirring up fear and anger, attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Amin to relent. It also announced that it would meet its obligations to Asians with British travel documents, most of which extended consular protection to the holders but not the right to live in the UK.

Britain Requests:Canada Responds

On August 18th, the British High Commissioner to Canada met with Trudeau to convey a formal request for assistance. Cabinet met on August 24th and Trudeau released a statement that day deploring Amin’s actions which violated Uganda’s “obligations under the UN Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights.” The statement announced:

"In an attempt to ease this humanitarian problem, both on those forced out of Uganda and on the people of Britain forced to share their already overcrowded island with a tide of involuntary immigrants from Uganda, the Canadian government is prepared to offer assistance."

Trudeau stated that a team from Manpower and Immigration and National Health and Welfare would be leaving for Uganda to accelerate the processing of applications from Ugandan Asians and that the minister of immigration had been authorized to “institute a program of admission in an emergency basis” for those that would not normally qualify for admission. Trudeau closed by stating:

"For our part, we are prepared to offer an honourable place in Canadian life to those Ugandan Asians who come to Canada under this program. Asian immigrants have already added to the cultural richness and variety of our country and, I am sure, that those from Uganda will, by their ability and industry, make an equally important contribution to Canadian society."

Roger St. Vincent, Officer in Charge of the Beirut area office, arrived in Kampala on August 31. Canada had no facilities in Uganda whatsoever. By the afternoon of 5 September, as team members arrived from Ottawa, Europe, Beirut and Nairobi, he had, with the assistance of the British High Commission, created a fully equipped and furnished immigration office in an ideal building in downtown Kampala. Doors opened to accept applications the following morning, September 6, 1972.

Cabinet met again on September 13 and from that point on communications from Ottawa stressed the humanitarian nature of the operation and that no limit would be set on the number to be accepted. Later instructions directed that priority be given to stateless Ugandans and those with Uganda citizenship with no obvious destination.

The details of how the Canadian operation in Kampala operated have been reported elsewhere. See St. Vincent’s Seven Crested Cranes at ( cranes-roger-st-vincent) for a day by day account.

Final Count

In the course of 60 days, the Canadian team screened, interviewed, medically examined and issued visas to 6,175 persons. It sent 4357 adults and 69 infants to Canada on 31 charter flights where they were welcomed, rested, issued warm clothing and given permanent residence status at Longue Point Canadian Forces Base in Montreal. Another 1,725 travelled to Canada on their own. At their destinations the newcomers were assisted in finding accommodation and employment by the local Canada Manpower Centres and volunteer welcoming committee funded by the federal government. Another 2,500 arrived, mainly from refugee camps in Europe in 1973 and 1974, bringing the total to 8,000. The shockwave created by the Ugandan expulsion unsettled Asians in East Africa, Zambia and Zaire and over the next six years 27,000 immigrated to Canada.


In the years between 1947, when Canada’s Prime Minister announced an unabashedly race-based immigration policy and 1971, when the Federal government embraced multiculturalism, Canada obviously had changed. Obviously, racism did not disappear but at the federal and provincial levels the weight of government policies, public discourse and laws, including immigration law, recognized that diversity in Canada was a reality and a potential source of economic strength and cultural enrichment.

The critical milestones in the liberalization of Canada’s immigration and refugee resettlement policies were Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, Ellen Fairclough’s 1962 immigration regulations, the policy of Universality, the point system of 1967 and opening resettlement to refugees from outside Europe following ratification of the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol in 1969. These changes were government led and reflected a more confident sense of Canadian identity, distinct from both “mother Britain” and our neighbour to the south.

The government had been aware of the post-independence pressures on the Asian communities in East Africa having sent officers to Kenya in 1968. The Canadian media and public saw Amin as a buffoon but a dangerous one. The government knew just how dangerous he was. A month before the expulsion order, a Canadian official visiting Kampala interviewed a man who had just witnessed army trucks heading for Lake Victoria, piled high with the bodies of soldiers from the southern tribes. A full account was sent to Ottawa detailing the massacre by northern soldiers on Amin’s orders. A dictator capable of ordering the murder of his own soldiers would be capable of anything.

The decision to intervene after Idi Amin’s expulsion announcement was made in Canada. The speed with which the Prime Minister seized control of the issue and ordered External Affairs, Immigration and the military to start planning indicates that the PM had decided to act as soon as word of the expulsion reached Ottawa. The period between hearing about the expulsion on August 4 or 5 and the announcement on August 24th that Canada was sending a team to Kampala was the time it took for the civil service, in consultation with St. Vincent in Beirut, to determine what was possible, where the staff and resources were needed and where they would come from. The formal British request conveyed to Canada by British High Commissioner on August 18 was a factor that helped explain the decision but planning to deploy the team and preparations for a cabinet meeting and announcement on August 24th would have been well advanced by then. The British were knocking on an open door.

Resettling the Ugandan Asians fitted neatly within the refugee policy framework the same Cabinet had established in 1970 and was consistent with the new multiculturalism policy. The formal decision to dispatch a team was confirmed by Cabinet on August 24 th and the second Cabinet meeting on September 13 shifted the focus away from normal immigration selection criteria to a more humanitarian approach. There were minor course adjustments along the way, there always are, but the basic direction had been set.

Any doubts about whether these Asians from Africa would establish successfully were quickly allayed. A week after the arrival of the first flight, the Canada Manpower Centre in Vancouver reported that the Kampala Rotary Club had held its first meeting there. Educated in English and often possessing British qualifications, the newcomers settled in so quickly that most of the volunteer committees established to assist them shut down within six months.

Building the Ugandan Asian Archive

A Portrait Series

Link to Uganda Asian Archive

The Uganda Collection at Carleton University

The Uganda Collection at the Carleton University Library consists of archival material that highlights the expulsion of South Asian people from Uganda in 1972, and the resettlement of Ugandan Asian refugees in Canada. The collection includes three scrapbooks, hundreds of clippings from national and international newspapers, and a memoir that documents the Canadian immigration team's experiences in Kampala during the expulsion. The collection also includes numerous oral history interviews from Ugandan Asian refugees who recall their experiences of the expulsion decree and their subsequent resettlement in Canada. The initial collection was transferred to Archives and Research Collections through the efforts of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and the Fakirani family, and continues to be built upon by members of the Ugandan Asian community. The collection is digitized can be found online at:

40th Anniversary Lecture: Ugandan Asian Refugee Movement 1972

The 1972 Uganda Asian Refugee movement was the first test of Canada's "Universal" immigration policy as applied to refugees. The talk will examine the reasons behind General Idi Amin’s decision to expel Uganda’s small but dynamic Asian community and the Trudeau government’s reaction to the expulsion within a new Immigration and refugee policy framework. It will describe how a small, hastily assembled team went to Kampala in September 1972 and moved over 6000 refugees to Canada by the 8 November deadline imposed by the Ugandan government. Finally it will examine the impact of the Ugandan experience on the refugee resettlement provisions of the 1976 Immigration Act and on the subsequent Indochinese refugee program of 1979-80.

Mike Molloy, a retired Foreign Service Officer, is president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He was a member of the team sent to Uganda in 1972 in September 1972 where he managed the unit that interviewed the refugees. His subsequent career included implementing the refugee provisions of the 1976 Immigration Act, including the refugee sponsorship program, coordinating the 1979-80 Indochinese Refugee movement, and managing Canada’s relations with the UN High Commissioner for Refugee in Geneva. He held various Director General level positions in the Immigration department, was Ambassador to Jordan, coordinated Canada’s Middle East Peace Process activities and since retirement has co-directed the Jerusalem Old City Initiative at the University of Windsor. In the course of his career he served in Japan, Lebanon, Minneapolis, Geneva, Jordan (twice), Syria and Kenya.

Title: 40th Anniversary Lecture: Uganda Asian Refugee Movement 1972, Presenter: Mike Molloy

Transcript of Mike Molloy on the Uganda Refugee Movement-Oral History Project, Carleton University. Ottawa Canada

Historic documents of 1972 immigration of Ugandans to Canada given to Carleton (story by Marcus Guido)

Blair Rutherford (left) helps accept the documents on behalf of Carleton and says they’ll help students in a variety of programs study and research as the university puts them online just after the fall semester starts. (James Park Photo)

Carleton University has received what is believed to be “the most comprehensive collection of documents” reporting the immigration of 6,000 Ugandan Asians to Canada in the summer and fall of 1972.

The Canadian Immigration Historical Society and its partners officially handed over the collection to the university on June 20.

“At the time when this was happening people’s minds weren’t on preserving history, but this is what this archive does. It actually preserves our history as stories,” says Salim Fakirani, who was only two when his family left Uganda at the exodus order of dictator Idi Amin.

Uganda Asian Exodus Files Handover

(Left to right) Blair Rutherford (Professor of African Studies, Carleton University), Patti Harper (Head, Archives & Research Collections, Carleton University), Ginette Leroux and Jolene Beaupre (secretaries during the expulsion in Kampala, Uganda) and Roger St. Vincent (leader of the Canadian team in Kampala, and author of "Seven Crested Cranes").

Photo by James Park, 2012.

(EDITOR, KHOJAWIKI: May Ellen, Ginette Leroux and Jolene Beaupre made such a powerful impression on the Asians applying to come to Canada during those first weeks of the Kampala operation that there is a reference to them in Tasneem Jamal's novel, "Where the Air is Sweet",


The collection will be accessible on the Internet by Sept. 28, just after the 40-year anniversary of Amin’s order, says the society.

It includes hundreds of British, American, Canadian and Ugandan newspaper clippings and a day-by-day narrative of the three-month immigration process conducted by Canadian immigration officials based in Uganda. “It’s a significant event in Canadian history. It’s the first large-scale non-European immigration to Canada … so it’s worth studying from an academic standpoint,” says Fakirani.

Many of the Ugandan Asians who travelled to Canada had university degrees from England, says Ginette Leroux, a visa worker who helped hand out about 2,600 immigration applications a day during her month’s work in the East African country.

“They were very pleasant people and they were very educated people. I think we were lucky to get them,” she says. “I think as far as immigrants and immigration goes, we got the cream of the crop.”

The collection couldn’t have come at a better time for the university’s Institute of African Studies, says professor and director Blair Rutherford, as there’s a new first-year course starting in September that looks at African refugees.

It should also help students in courses such as history, anthropology and political science, he says. Graduate students will benefit, too.

“We have students who do master’s and PhD theses on this topic. In fact, I know a few students looking at Ugandan Asians in Canada, so this is excellent material they can access directly on campus.” Fakirani looked over the collection before it was given to Carleton and says more than just students and researchers will read its contents.

“It’s just unbelievable the amount of documentation there is of what happened during that period,” he says. “For those interested, including the South Asian community, it’s incredible.”